Originally established as the Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory (AERL) — part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) — in 1941, NASA's Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, OH became a national resource for innovations in aircraft engine technology that influenced commercial and military propulsion systems. Lewis Research Center became part of the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. In 1999, NASA Lewis was renamed the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field.

Areas of Expertise

Aircraft Propulsion. Glenn's work advances propulsion for aircraft while reducing energy consumption, noise, emissions, and the cost of air travel. Work involves investigating the use of alternative energy sources and improving the safety and expediency of flight. Core expertise includes engine cycles, advanced propulsion systems, component improvements, controls and dynamics, harsh environment sensors, electronics, instrumentation, health monitoring and management, materials and structures, power extraction and management, icing, fuels and propellants, acoustics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer, aerothermodynamics, and plasmas.

Communications Technology and Development. Communication solutions to improve air traffic management, communications, and navigation among satellites, aircraft, spacecraft, astronauts, robots, and ground operations are developed. This includes advanced antennas, integrated radio frequency and optical terminals, software-defined radios, high-power amplifiers, and networking for high-data-rate communications.

Space Propulsion and Cryogenic Fluids Management. Through innovations in propellant management and chemical, electric, and nuclear propulsion technology, Glenn develops capabilities that are a critical part of NASA's mission to take astronauts to a variety of deep-space destinations. Core expertise includes propellants, chemical propulsion, electric propulsion (ion, Hall, plasma), nuclear propulsion, cryogenic fluids (oxygen, methane, and hydrogen) handling, characterization, storage, delivery, demonstration, and flight packages.

NASA Glenn's Superelastic Tire is a viable alternative to the pneumatic tire. The tire shown here is all metal but could be encased in rubber for improved performance.

NASA's Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) project is developing critical technologies to extend the length and capabilities of new science and exploration missions. Once they are placed into orbit and separated from their launch vehicle, spacecraft must rely on their onboard propulsion systems for any further maneuvering. For certain deep-space missions, the onboard propulsion systems and their required propellant may make up more than half of the overall spacecraft mass. By utilizing SEP, the mass of the propulsion system and propellant can be reduced by up to 90 percent by augmenting the propellant with energy from the Sun. As a result, SEP is a cost-efficient method to transport cargo to the deepest reaches of space.

Utilizing electric power from solar arrays to ionize and accelerate xenon gas, highly efficient thrust is produced using one-tenth of the propellant required by conventional chemical propulsion systems. SEP enables spacecraft weight reduction, increases flexibility of mission design, and provides higher delta-V systems.

Hybrid Electric Propulsion. NASA is investing in hybrid electric propulsion research as part of its overall efforts to improve the fuel efficiency, emissions, and noise levels in commercial transport aircraft. The term “hybrid electric” encompasses many different methods for using both airplane fuel and electricity to drive the propulsion system. Research in this area includes airplane concepts, electrical power systems, component materials, and test facilities along with exploratory investment in turbine-generator interactions and boundary-layer ingestion validation. The overall goal is to reduce fuel burn, energy consumption, emissions, and noise for single-aisle passenger aircraft.

Power, Energy Storage, and Conversion. NASA Glenn is ushering in the next generation of technologies for power generation, energy conversion, and storage by studying and developing solar power generation, batteries, fuel cells, regenerative fuel cells, flywheels, thermal energy conversion and heat rejection, radioisotopes, fission, power electronics, and power management and distribution.

Materials and Structures for Extreme Environments. Materials and structures improve aircraft engines, space propulsion systems, and planetary surface operations while contributing to technologies for practical Earth applications.

Physical Sciences and Biomedical Technologies in Space. NASA Glenn studies the effects of long-duration missions on astronaut health to support sustainable exploration of space. Advancements in fire safety, life support systems, and crew health monitoring extend mission duration and enhance the safety of space travel.

Research Facilities

Glenn's research facilities have contributed to decades of technology advances. Aerospace testing facilities accurately simulate aircraft flight conditions on Earth and the harshest conditions found in the far reaches of the solar system. Facility capabilities include engine components testing, full-scale engine testing, flight research, icing research, materials and structures, microgravity, space power and propulsion, and wind tunnels.

Plum Brook Station, located 50 miles west of Cleveland, is home to four test facilities that perform ground tests for the international space community. Glenn has repurposed its Hypersonic Tunnel Facility to create the NASA Electric Aircraft Testbed (NEAT) at Plum Brook Station. NEAT is a reconfigurable facility that can accommodate power systems for large passenger airplanes like a Boeing 737, with megawatts of power. This testbed takes advantage of the facility's massive amounts of available power to carry out research and technology development of aircraft electrical powertrains.

NEAT also includes a vacuum chamber that can simulate altitudes of up to 40,000 feet to test high-voltage power electronics, electric motors, and controls. As large airline companies compete to reduce emissions, fuel, and noise, aircraft manufacturers are shifting more of their aircraft systems to electrical power. To help usher in the next revolution in aviation — hybrid electric and turboelectric aircraft — NASA is building and testing portions of a concept aircraft's power systems with an eye toward the future.

The Space Environments Complex (SEC) houses the world's largest and most powerful space environment simulation facilities including the Space Simulation Vacuum Chamber measuring 100 feet in diameter by 122 feet high.

Glenn's image-processing method can provide two- or three-dimensional, high-contrast visualization of veins and other vascular structures.

The Reverberant Acoustic Test Facility is the world's most powerful spacecraft acoustic test chamber. It can simulate the noise of a spacecraft launch up to 163 decibels or as loud as the thrust of 20 jet engines.

The Mechanical Vibration Facility is the world's highest-capacity and most powerful spacecraft shaker system, subjecting test articles to the rigorous conditions of launch.

The In-Space Propulsion Facility (ISP) is the world's only facility capable of testing full-scale, upper-stage launch vehicles and rocket engines under simulated high-altitude conditions. The engine or vehicle can be exposed for indefinite periods to low ambient pressures, low-background temperatures, and dynamic solar heating to simulate the environment of orbital or interplanetary travel.

Technologies

Hundreds of technologies developed at Glenn have been patented and offered for licensing; about 90 technologies have been spun off into commercial products since 2000. Here are just a few.

Advanced hydrogen and hydrocarbon gas sensors were developed that are capable of detecting leaks, monitoring emissions, and providing in-situ measurements of gas composition and pressure. These compact, rugged sensors can be used to optimize combustion and lower emissions, and are designed to withstand harsh, high-temperature environments. Some of the sensors, based on silicon carbide, can operate at 600 °C.

Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs) are materials that can be deformed at low temperature and recover their original shape upon heating. Glenn is working to develop new alloys that can operate up to ~300 °C, compared to ~80 °C for commercially available alloys. The SMAs are used in actuators, heat detection devices, medical devices, automotive, aeronautics, and the military.

A new generation of silicon carbide (SiC) logic and mixed signal integrated circuits (ICs) were developed that are unprecedented in the field of high-temperature electronics. Previously, SiC ICs could not withstand more than a few hours of 500 °C temperatures before degrading or failing. The new ICs consistently exceed 1,000 hours of continuous operation at 500 °C. They will enable improvements in sensing, control, and operation of harsh-environment systems.

A laser scanner is used to scan ice accretion on the leading edge of an airfoil in Glenn's Icing Research Tunnel. The data from the scans will be used to create a 3D-printed model for researchers to study as part of NASA's fundamental aeronautics research. (Credit: NASA/Francis T. Jennings, Jr.)

A polymer electrolyte-based ambient temperature oxygen microsensor allows fire, fuel leak, and personal protection monitoring in a variety of environments. Because it detects oxygen levels from 7 to 21% in nitrogen, it also enables environmental and personal health monitoring. The microsensor is small, simple to batch-fabricate, consumes little power, and operates in a wide humidity range.

Countless industries depend on chemical sensors for fast and accurate detection of carbon dioxide (CO2) to protect their workers and those who rely on their products or services. Glenn developed a state-of-the-art, solid-electrolyte-based microsensor for measuring concentrations of CO2 from 0.5 to 4%. While its predecessors typically operated only at high temperatures (600 °C), this microsensor operates at temperatures as low as 375 °C. Applications include fire detection, personal health monitoring, ventilation control, and automotive engines.

Glenn developed a game-changing, non-pneumatic tire called the Superelastic Tire that is the latest evolution of the Spring Tire, which was invented by Glenn and Goodyear. The novel use of shape memory alloys instead of typical elastic materials results in a tire that can withstand excessive deformation without permanent damage. It offers traction equal or superior to conventional pneumatic tires and eliminates both the possibility of puncture failures and running under-inflated.

Windows in buildings could be replaced with transparent aerogels that allow light transmission while remaining thermally insulating.

A subcutaneous structure imager locates veins in challenging patient populations such as juvenile, elderly, dark-skinned, or obese patients. The system includes a camera-processor-display apparatus and uses an image processing method to provide two- or three-dimensional, high-contrast visualization of veins or other vasculature structures. Compared to other solutions, the imager is inexpensive, compact, and very portable, so it can be used in remote third-world areas, emergency response situations, or military battlefields.

Machine vibration often originates with rotating components such as rotors, gears, bearings, and fans. Such vibration not only creates unwanted noise but can also be destructive to the machine. Originally designed to reduce helicopter cabin noise, Glenn developed a vibration ring that provides damping without disrupting the operation or position tolerance of the mechanical assembly. Besides reducing noise, it also reduces wear and tear and the ring can generate electrical energy to power sensors on rotating machine parts.

A new means of avoiding and mitigating icing events for aircraft flying above 14,000 feet dramatically improves aviation safety and reduces operating costs. Often undetectable with current radar, ice can accumulate, or accrete, in turbo-fan engines, causing serious engine operational problems and sometimes even catastrophic engine failures. Using a combination of sensors, engine system modeling, and compressor flow analysis code, Glenn's innovation performs real-time analysis to determine the potential of ice accretion, allowing pilots to avoid potential icing while using a more direct route than would otherwise be possible.

The modular architecture of Glenn's battery management system improves safety and reliability in electric/hybrid vehicles, uninterrupted power systems (UPS) for critical systems, utilities, and hospitals.

Glenn developed materials and methods to optimize the performance of nano-materials by making them tougher, more resistant, and easier to process. Glenn is improving all stages of nanomaterial production, from finding new ways to produce nanomaterials, to purifying them to work more effectively with advanced composites.

Glenn's portfolio of aerogels includes a new optically transparent polyimide aerogel — a low-density, highly porous, ultralight material derived from gels. The new aerogel maintains the robust nature of a polyimide network while providing the added feature of extremely high surface areas and uniform pore size and distribution. This unique combination of strength, transparency, and exceptional insulating properties makes the aerogels ideal for replacing windows, windshields, and more at a fraction of the weight and without the use of harmful or toxic chemical coatings.

Technology Transfer

For more information, contact Glenn's Technology Transfer Office at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 216-433-3484; or visit technology.grc.nasa.gov.


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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